Steven Spielberg's Great Escapes
"It's all about escapism." Steven Spielberg, discussing his trade, November 2011
In his 1982 documentary Room 666, Wim Wenders set up a camera in a hotel room in Cannes and invited his colleagues to come in, sit down and talk to the (unmanned) camera for five minutes about the future of cinema. There was no interviewer, no other prompt – it was entirely up to the filmmakers to speak their piece.
Godard talked (brilliantly) about television and digital. Herzog took off his shoes and imagined a future in which cinema adapted to new technology and audiences could watch whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. And Steven Spielberg talked about money – how the expense of making movies threatened to push out "personal films".
Well, he wasn't wrong.
Great filmmakers do not have to be great businessmen, but among those who are, Steven Spielberg stands at the top of the heap. Here he is, in his mid sixties, and for at least half of his lifetime he’s consistently been the most successful moviemaker in Hollywood. It’s not unusual for a director to produce good work over an extended period of time, but it’s very rare to find someone whose work is embraced by popular taste for four decades (and counting).
Spielberg – who turned 65 last month – was the youngest member of the boys club who rode into town to save Hollywood in the 1970s. His peers were Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, Milius and Friedkin. Even after the blockbuster hits Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extra Terrestrial, at the time Wenders made his documentary most critics would probably have ranked him towards the bottom of that list in artistic terms. At the time, everyone was waiting for Spielberg to grow up and make films for adults.
He did, eventually, and earned respect and Oscars, but even today he might be lucky to break the top three, no matter that he’s avoided the career troughs that have plagued the others to varying degrees. For my money he can’t touch Scorsese or Coppola, and if he’s a more well-adjusted citizen of the world than the rest, I’m not at all sure that makes him a more interesting artist.
That's not to deny he’s made significant and worthwhile entertainments – movies capable of bringing audiences to tears, or even to their feet. At least half a dozen of his films seem to me first rate: AI: Artificial Intelligence, Schindler's List, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.
But has Spielberg made a “personal film”? You could make a case that JJ Abrams’ Super 8 is a more Spielbergian movie than the man himself has delivered since AI (and yes, there is an irony there too: that Spielberg’s last truly individual movie was developed by Stanley Kubrick and concerned the soul of an automaton). Certainly he is not a stupid man. He is serious about his Jewish identity, about history, WWII, and education. Some of his strongest movies convey that responsibility: Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Munich. These are films for grown ups, made with all the considerable artistry at his command. But are they shaped by his personality, his soul, or by industrial convention?
More than anyone, Spielberg has accrued the power to make whatever film he chooses and on the budget he deems appropriate, and out of all that freedom and all that power, he gives us Hook… The Lost World… The Terminal… Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull?
All right, I exaggerate. (Though he’s also personally responsible for producing three Transformers movies and Cowboys & Aliens). But the fact remains Spielberg is always careful to hedge his bets, twinning his riskiest projects (like Schindler’s List) with his most commercial (Jurassic Park), and tempering his more ambitious efforts with sentimental endings (War Of The Worlds). He’s a smart operator, but not too clever to let his brains get the better of his business savvy.
Which is why War Horse seems to me such a very bad movie, albeit a work of real skill and some brilliance. It’s not Spielberg’s virtuosity that’s at question here, but I find it hard to believe that John Milius – the man who wrote Apocalypse Now – or William Friedkin (The French Connection and The Exorcist) could have brought themselves to commit the last 15 minutes of this story to the screen without choking on its sentimentality or perhaps chopping the eponymous nag into a fine fillet steak. The most pressing battle going on in War Horse is between Spielberg’s conflicting impulses to respect the horrors of history and give a family audience the emotional uplift it craves. In this fight, as so often throughout his glittering career, Mr Spielberg has followed his commercial instincts and given the audience what they want.
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